The Wall Street Journal: Work & Family
Fairer Flextime: Employers Try
New Policies for Alternative Schedules
By Sue Shellenbarger, November 17, 2005
For the millions of U.S. workers who want more control over their time, companies have a new message: Flexible scheduling is getting an overhaul.
A few innovative employers are starting to hand out nontraditional work arrangements, including flextime, part-time hours and shorter workweeks, in a fairer, more systematic way. Some are opening up the option to all employees, rather than limiting flexibility to a privileged few, as has often been the case in the past. But they're also raising the bar for employees on nontraditional schedules by asking for more teamwork and accountability in return.
At Chubb Corp., some claims processors must pick up each other's tasks in return for a chance to work compressed workweeks -- four longer shifts each week instead of five typical ones. RSM McGladrey Inc., a Bloomington, Minn., accounting firm, is asking some employees to justify their flexible schedules in writing -- to show how it helps clients and co-workers as well as themselves. And at PrintingForLess.com in Livingston, Mont., employees take responsibility for keeping the presses running and customer-service jobs staffed nonstop, in return for the opportunity for each team to set its own members' schedules.
Flexible scheduling invariably ranks No. 1 in surveys of workers' most-wanted supports. Employers have been responding by gradually expanding alternative setups. A 2005 study of 1,092 employers by the Families and Work Institute in New York found employers are significantly more likely to offer compressed workweeks and flextime than they were in 1998.
But too often, flexible schedules have been expanded on an ad hoc basis, fostering perceptions that they arise from backroom deals. In a study of 2,887 workers entitled "A Question of Justice," published in the September 2005 issue of the Journal of Family Issues, researchers Jennifer Swanberg, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes and Krista Drescher-Burke found lower-paid, less-educated workers have far less access than higher-status workers to flextime or time off for personal needs.
Now, a handful of companies have begun what Paul Rupert, a Washington, D.C., consultant, calls a "remodelling" of flexible-scheduling policies. Like many firms striving to retain skilled workers, RSM McGladrey had been accommodating some employees' desire for nontraditional setups. But, says Jim Kadavy, the partner in charge of the firm's 600-employee Central Plains unit, "I felt we were bending over backward to make this work for the individual," with too little attention to business needs,
The schedules weren't even working for some of the intended beneficiaries: Michelle Krapfl, a manager in RSM's Cedar Rapids, Iowa, office, says she routinely worked well over the 30 hours a week she was paid for. As a result, says Teresa Hopke, the firm's director of work-life strategies, "flexibility was getting a bad rap."
In a top-to-bottom overhaul earlier this year, Mr. Kadavy offered all employees a chance to apply for flexible schedules. He also asked those who already had such a schedule to submit a written proposal describing how it affected their performance, clients and co-workers; what it cost; and how it could be evaluated. Although the fiat sparked fears of "a takeaway," Mr. Kadavy says, it also exposed problems with about 10% of the unit's 50 flexible setups. After Ms. Krapfl's boss revealed dissatisfaction with her part-time setup, she sought a transfer to a unit where her supervisor and co-workers also work flexibly and are happy with her output. Mr. Kadavy says he is confident now that flexibility is benefiting the firm. The pilot program is being rolled out to other locations at the company.
Other companies are cross-training employees in multiple jobs, to make sure back-up workers are always available to fill in. PrintingForLess.com, a commercial printer, puts client-service employees through a grueling 16 weeks of training so they can all perform an array of sales, customer-service and production tasks. Then, working in three-person teams with trained "designated hitters" as added back-up, employee teams schedule their own weeks, says President Andrew Field.
The added bench strength gave one employee, Julie Dennison, the freedom to drop everything last week and race to her toddler's day-care center after the child broke out in hives. Because trained co-workers were ready to step in, work was running smoothly the next day when she returned to her customer-service job.
When the offer of flexibility comes coupled with more responsibility, workers aren't always sure they want it. Pressmen at PrintingForLess objected at first when they were told they could set their own schedules -- as long as they took responsibility for keeping the presses running 24/7. "My eyes rolled back in my head," pressman Lloyd Miller recalls. But now, he says he enjoys working a compressed workweek.
Mr. Field says that if he ever took back the setup, "there would be a revolt."
At a Phoenix unit of insurer Chubb, employees were offered some control over their hours in return for taking responsibility for getting their teams' work done well. Most opted for compressed workweeks or flexible lunch hours and starting and quitting times, says Judy Sammarco, a senior human-resource manager. With improved life balance as an incentive, employee Debbie Ambrosy and her four co-workers "really pulled together," huddling every morning to plan work flow, she says. The 90-day pilot speeded claims-processing and cut absenteeism 50%, says the Warren, N.J.-based concern.
In another initiative, J.C. Penney Co. is using automated scheduling to give employees choices while eliminating the possibility of favoritism. The Plano, Texas-based retailer's 5,000 telemarketing employees punch in scheduling preferences at computer kiosks and workstations -- dropping, adding or trading shifts. The setup is so popular that the retailer is considering a similar system for its 1,020 stores, a spokesman says.
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